A catch-up blog

My friend Martha emailed me last week. ‘Is everything alright?’ she asked. My blog posts had dried up and Martha was concerned about our welfare. I sent her a quick and all too short response, assuring her that everything is fine with us, but I have been so busy, I simply haven’t had time to write any new blogs. This is unbelievably frustrating for me. Events have come and gone, time has passed and I’ve lost the moment and the momentum to write.

We have had some wonderful times – the school carnaval and the village carnaval; the Contraband Festival that linked the two villages with a temporary footbridge across the river; Lily’s birthday, and the birthday parties of classmates; a friend’s party downriver.

We’ve also had more trying times – a night in accident and emergency in Huelva when Lily had concussion; Carina dragging her anchor in high winds (twice) when we weren’t aboard and quick evasive action was required; Julian suddenly finding himself out of work, leaving us wondering about our short and medium future plans. Thankfully, all those problems have resolved themselves and I’m sleeping more easily again!

Looking after our friend’s house, dog and land continues to be a mostly enjoyable, if time-consuming, endeavour. Our multiple daily journeys to and from the village, on foot or by dinghy, take time and, as the days grow longer, sunnier and hotter, land maintenance increases, with fruit trees and vegetable patch needing irrigation and fast-growing canes and brambles needing to be cut back.

And on top of it all, my editing work is flooding in. It’s a great job, that I thoroughly enjoy, but at the end of a day sitting in front of the laptop editing other people’s work, the last thing I want to do is any writing of my own!

However, despite not having time to write about all we’ve been getting up to, I have kept a photo record of it all. So, here, by way of my camera and smart phone, is our last month…

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My two little owls at school Carnaval. Thank you to Rika aboard yacht Brillig for sewing the masks. Without Rika I would have had to pull an all-nighter to have the costumes ready in time!

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Lily and Katie Owl, with their Owl classmates Luisa and Miguel and Luisa’s baby Owl sister, Carla. Cuties xxxxxx

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A few days later it was the always colourful Sanlucar village Carnaval.

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This time we were pirates, princesses and…erm…a bumble bee.

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The best fancy dress was surely the family that collectively dressed as a roller coaster!

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After our night in Accident and Emergency in a Huelva hospital, Lily and I were tired, relieved and ready for breakfast, as we waited for Julian to come pick us up. Thank you to Martin for driving us to Huelva, to Sue and Robin for loaning us their car to get home again, to Emma and Paul for having Katie for the night, for packing a bag of food to keep me going, and for loaning us warm clothes for the night!

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Name that yachtie!! A much needed relaxing lunch and bottle of wine with our good friends Rosa and Phil, after rescuing Carina when she drifted downriver.

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To commemorate the smuggling culture between Spain and Portugal, the two villages held a fantastic joint festival, and were joined together by a footbridge. The construction of the bridge was a fascination for many of us!

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The official opening of the bridge, with mayors and officials from both sides meeting in the middle of the river.

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Natually, we took every opportunity to enjoy the novelty of walking across the river!

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And, after walking the river, it was supper time.

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For Lily’s 8th birthday, we hired the village hall and showed the movie ‘Big Hero 6’

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Followed, of course, by party food and cake (beetroot-chocolate cake topped with fresh strawberries). Thank you to Sawa and Rose-marie for all their help at the party! You both rock!!

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The day after Lily’s party we were downriver for a party hosted by our lovely friends Claire and Ed. It seemed like every foreigner on the river was there. Thanks for a lovely time, and apologies for the mayhem we caused!!

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And where there are extranjeros, there’s good music!

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Lily, Katie, Lola and Isla (and mum Emma) looking beautiful in the spring sunshine.

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Meanwhile, life goes on on the land…the girls walking home from school.

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Hanging out with their new friends Lupin and Buster.

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Engaging in a touch of spring cleaning.

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Making strange drink concoctions with their friend Gwendolyn.

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Dressing up Chester.

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And now and again….just now and again….I sit on the dock and soak up this wonderful place.

Romería

It’s almost two months since the good citizens of Sanlúcar de Guadiana and El Granado walked out one Saturday around midday and met in a field midway between their two villages for two days of fun and frolics. Men came on horseback, dressed in high-waisted trousers and wide-brimmed hats; women, some on horseback too, were dressed in voluminous layered figure hugging flamenco dresses, their lips painted red and their hair elaborately coiffed. This was the annual Romería, when neighbouring villagers get together to, ahem, expand the gene pool.

My mother and sister were visiting from Ireland and we couldn’t but join in the festivities. While proper flamenco dresses are way beyond our price range (and where on earth would we store them aboard Carina?), we were advised to dress the girls in the cheaper children’s flamenco dresses to be found in every resort town in Spain. We owned one already, and borrowed a second.

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Katie and Granny on the road to El Granado

For a week or more before the festival the people of Sanlúcar and El Granado, a village of similar size ten minutes away by car, were busy making their preparations. The same field, midway between the two villages, is used each year. Extended families build casetas – temporary structures made of wood and tarpaulin – which provide shade and shelter. In Sanlúcar carts were decorated with flowers and bunting, and cars and trucks loaded with chairs, tables, barrels and crates of beer to be transported to the site.

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On Friday evening Julian went out for a walk after supper. He was gone almost an hour when I heard the unmistakable sound of flamenco singing and someone playing a tambourine. I looked up the street to see a covered wagon slowly making its way along the street, pulled by a mule, and Julian sitting up in the middle of a bunch of women! They’d picked him up as he was walking along and plied him with local wine as they went on two circuits of the village, singing and making merry.

 

On Saturday morning we prepared a picnic, the girls dressed in their flamenco dresses, and we set out. A misjudgement on my part meant we missed the opportunity to travel in one of the covered wagons. Earlier in the day I’d met Pepe, the mayor, and he said Lily and Katie should go in a wagon. Last year the procession of men, women and children on horseback and in mule, horse and tractor-drawn covered wagons had set out from Sanlúcar at around 2pm. So, despite being told the procession would begin at midday, I assumed it would not be prompt. I was wrong. So we ended up walking. Even so, we reached the Romería site almost two hours before the procession. We took the main road and walked for half an hour. The procession took a dirt track and stopped every few minutes to drink, sing and dance!

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A well-deserved picnic after our walk in the hot sun

The Romería site was like a gypsy camp. Each extended family had its own caseta, some with bars set up, some with people playing guitars or accordions, all with vast amounts of food. We joined some other ex-pats we know in the shade of their camper van awning, and we ate and drank our fill from our picnic.

The two processions – Sanlúcar from one direction and El Granado from the other – arrived simultaneously and entered the field amidst great fanfare. It was an amazing spectacle, gorgeous men and women astride prancing horses and the tipsy passengers in the carts singing.

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Arriving in style!

Lily and Katie quickly found their friends, and we found the friends’ parents. We were invited into various casetas to partake of food and drink. Throughout the afternoon men paraded around on their horses, and the occasional teenage boy cantered past with a pretty girl sitting behind him. The joy of the day left a smile on my face.

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Lily and her friend Israel

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Lily’s friends, Isaac and Israel outside their family’s caseta.

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The girls had lots of fun with their friends

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Katie enjoying herself!

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Some of the Sanlucar men even ate on horseback!

Last year we watched the procession set out from Sanlúcar, not sure what it was all about. I’m still not quite sure what it’s all about, but we certainly had fun joining in this year.

Nuestra Señora de la Rábida

Preparation for the Fiestas in honour of Our Lady of La Rábida, Sanlúcar’s village festival, started weeks ago. The local painter and decorator, with his army of local women, went from house to house, whitewashing walls and painting wooden doors and iron window grills. Each day housewives washed and brushed the footpaths outside their houses, and large maroon banners with the golden insignia of the Virgen de la Flores were hung from balconies. This little village of less than three hundred people was sparkling, ready for its holiest and most important feast of the year.

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The procession of the Virgin

Here in Spain every town and village, and even in some cases neighbourhoods within towns, has its own feast day, celebrating its patron saint. In many cases, as here in Sanlúcar, the patron saint is the Blessed Virgen. The Feast of the Virgin of the Flowers, Our Lady of la Rábida, is celebrated each year in Sanlúcar on the first weekend after Easter Sunday.

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Dressed for the Fiesta

On Easter Sunday morning (after our Easter egg hunt and Lily’s requested birthday breakfast of crêpes), the girls and I dressed in our best dresses and made our way up the hill to the beautiful village church. Unlike Christmas Day, when only a handful of old people attended Mass and all wore their everyday clothes, on Easter Sunday there was standing room only in the church and everyone, from the oldest grandfather to little Carla, born on New Year’s Day, were dressed in their finest outfits. The mums and dads I know from the school gate were virtually unrecognisable – the men smartly dressed in suits and the women in elegant dresses, their hair newly styled and their faces made up. I was glad the girls and I had made an effort too!

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Local women dressed to kill

Behind the altar was the elaborate gold palanquin. The statue of the Virgin herself stood beside the altar. In the middle of Mass prayers were said in her honour and she was solemnly lifted onto the palanquin and her gold crown placed on her head. To the repeated cry of ‘Long live the Virgin, long live the mother of God, etc’, the congregation cried in unison ‘Viva’. Many in the church, including all the children, carried bunches of pink and white carnations which they (including Lily) brought to the altar to be placed at the feet of the Virgin.

In the days after Easter Sunday preparation in the village reached fever pitch. A large marquee was erected in the plaza with a bar, stage and seating for hundreds, and street vendors moved into the area near the dock, setting up gofre stands, shooting galleries and bouncy castles. As the streets were cleaned even more, each evening bangers were fired. We made our own preparations, dressing Carina in her complement of flags in readiness for the role we were to play in the fiesta.

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Carrying the palanquin into the church

On Friday evening, the fiesta began. At 9pm prayers were said in the church and at 11pm the marquee came to life with a band that played lively music until 4am. The 9pm prayers were accompanied by the firing of bangers and these continued to be fired at regular intervals for the next four days, a man always on duty on the slipway near the dock.

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Procession through the village

At 9am Saturday morning we (and everyone else in the village) were awoken by the loud firing of bangers and a brass band marching through the streets of the village playing lively music to get us all out of bed. The girls and I dressed in our best dresses again, and made our way to the church. Once again, there was standing room only, and if the congregation had looked good on Easter Sunday, they now looked even more spectacular and the church itself was decorated with masses of white roses and lilies.

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In the church

A male dance troop, doing what in the UK would be called Morris dancing, danced from the plaza to the church, leading the way for the town dignitaries and the twenty women who had been responsible for the preparations for this year’s fiesta. Inside the church the Bishop of Huelva said Mass and afterwards the altar was removed and the pews moved to one side to make way for the most beautiful and memorable part of the fiesta.

The dancers, accompanied by a man simultaneously playing a drum and pipe, danced through the church, up and down the aisle, while another group of men prepared to carry the palanquin on a procession through the village. With perfect timing, they lifted her, five or six men on either side, swaying under the weight of the palanquin, and the procession began. Slowly down the steps of the church they went, confetti thrown down on from the bell tower, and hundreds processed through the town, the dancing men in front, the marching band behind, and cries of ‘Viva’ rising up.

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During the Spanish Civil War, when many Catholic icons were destroyed, the Virgin was sent to Alcoutim, across the river, for safekeeping. To thank their Portuguese neighbours for protecting her during the war, each year when the procession reaches the river, the Virgin is turned towards Portugal. The brass band plays the Portuguese national anthem, bangers are fired, and the church in Alcoutim responds by ringing its church bell. It was now our time to contribute to the procession. With the other boats on the dock, Julian sounded Carina‘s fog horn long and loud, and fired one of our old flares. The procession then carried on through the village and returned to the church.

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Julian ready to sound the fog horn

At 6pm the music started again in the marquee, three different bands playing music until 5.30am! Lily and Katie ran around with their friends, spending money at the various stands, while Julian and I enjoyed the festivities in the marquee, having a few drinks, taking to the dance floor and really having a good time.

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Lily and Katie dancing with their school friends Carmen and Miriam

At 9am the next morning we were once again awoken by the marching band and the bangers and the third day of the fiesta proceeded exactly like the second. I couldn’t persuade the girls to come to Mass with me, but they dressed up in yet more fine clothes and joined me for the procession afterwards. This time the adult dancers were joined by the village’s young boys, including all but one of Lily’s male classmates. Julian once again stayed on board to perform his duties when the Virgin faced the river. Mass on Sunday morning was beautiful, with a choir from Isla Cristina making it all the more emotional and special. In the evening we once again made our way to the marquee and when the girls grew too tired to stay any longer, Julian took them home to bed and I carried on, dancing and perhaps drinking a little too much (so much for that New Year’s resolution, eh?!).

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Saturday procession

By Sunday evening most of the out of town visitors had left, as only those of us who live here could enjoy a public holiday the next day. Monday dawned wet and windy. At 9am, yet again, the bangers and marching band woke us. Still in my pajamas I made the dessert I had been planning to make for the past two days. But it had to be done now, because Monday was the day of the village feast.

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On the street that faces Portugal

Because of the rain, Monday’s after-Mass procession had to be cancelled. But what happened instead was perhaps even more intense and emotional that if we had processed through the streets. When Mass ended the altar and pews were once again cleared away. The boy dance troupe took to the floor, dancing up and down the church. The brass band played. The local flamenco choir sang hymns. And the men carried the palanquin up and down the church, standing in place, swaying her from side to side. I looked around and realised that many many people were crying. Old and young, men and women, weeping openly as the religious part of the fiesta reached its conclusion.

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Katie, Lily and their school friend Hannah in church

In the pouring rain we dashed to the marquee for the village dinner. There was barely seating room for all. We were served delicious plates of chickpea and chorizo casserole and we drank heartily. Everyone in the village contributes financially to the organisation of the fiesta. But as the extranjeros – the foreigners – cannot do so, so each year our contribution to the fiesta is the preparation of desserts for the village feast. Along with some of the other foreign women I had made desserts and after the meal we brought these in on plates and served them to our Spanish neighbours, amid loud applause. And then it was time for more music and dancing.

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The village feast on Monday afternoon

By the time Monday night rolled around we were exhausted and very glad that the girls had Tuesday off school too. We spent Tuesday recovering and reminiscing about the incredible few days we had just experienced.

 

 

Carnival

C—-‘s mother looks at me in horror. ‘You can’t have a blue nose’ she croaks, her heavily accented Andalucian Spanish all the more cackily for her 40-fags a day habit. ‘Clowns have red noses’, she cackles indignantly. We stand, clown-face to clown-face, both of us dressed in orange bin bags decorated with cardboard bowties, buttons and pockets, our faces covered in sticky face paint, yellow hats on our heads. ‘M—-‘, I say to her in rapid English, knowing she won’t understand a word. ‘Free yourself from convention. A clown nose can be any colour you want it to be. Live free M—. Live free’.
‘Qué?’ she croaks at me, before turning her attention to her children to make sure they will be the most spectacular clowns in the parade. I skip off to adorn my shoes with large yellow paper bows.

It’s Carnival. Two weeks late. But it’s Carnival. Around here, Carnival is staggered so that residents from different villages can participate in each other’s festivities. Kinda defeats the purpose of Lent, if you’re spending the six weeks before Easter dressing up and eating copious amounts of sweets. But hey, who am I to judge? To complicate matters further, the Sanlúcar village and school Carnivals are held on different days – the school Carnival taking place on a school day to accommodate teachers who don’t live in the village. Today, for the school Carnival, I am ridiculously dressed as a clown following weeks of intense preparation.

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It all started about a week into the new term. A sign went up on the wall outside Katie’s class informing parents we had to provide our children with black boots, red leggings and red long-sleeved t-shirts. And we had to give the teacher €5 per child so she could buy the rest of the items necessary to complete the costumes. We had none of the above (apart from the €5) at home, so I borrowed and improvised. I covered Katie’s pink rubber boots in a cut up pair of old black tights and borrowed leggings from Ana and a top from Hannah. It was all relatively easy.

The preparations for Lily’s class were somewhat more involved. Her teacher arranged a meeting with the parents to decide what the class would dress as. Various ideas were thrown around – clowns, rainbows, Peppa Pig. This last would involve the parents laboriously making papier maché Peppa Pig heads. We quickly ruled out that option. In the end we decided on making clown outfits, at which point the teacher washed her hands of the whole affair and left us parents to get on with it.

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A week later the parents met in the classroom. There were six mothers and two fathers present There are only nine children in the class, and only one mother was absent – the aforementioned M—. There was a clear cultural divide. The two English, one Dutch and one Irish mum just wanted to get on with it as quickly and painlessly as possible, make the costumes and go home again. The Spanish dads agreed with us, but the Spanish mums were aiming for perfection.

Heated discussions ensued concerning hats, the positioning of buttons, whether to use glue or staples to assemble the costumes once we had made all the constituent parts. After an hour, when we already have a production line of paper, scissors, glue and stickers going on, M— arrived in, talking loudly on her mobile phone and proceeded to loudly (while simultaneously talking on her phone and drinking a can of Coke) inform us that she was not happy with what we had achieved in her absence and she would have done things differently. The other Spanish parents have no patience for her and told her loudly, without any ado, to shut up, sit down and help out.

After an hour and a half we had achieved a little, but there was still much to do. We agreed to meet at the same time next week, to finish the costumes. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, getting to know the Spanish parents who I had only ever said hello to before, practicing my Spanish and listening hard to the rapid Spanish conversation going on around me. (One of the English mums and the Dutch mum are Spanish speakers).

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We met the next week and completed the costumes, but there was still debate about the necessity of hats on top of the clown wigs the children would wear and if we were to make hats, should they be top hats or cone shaped. The English/Dutch/Irish contingent argued that if there must be hats, they should be of the easier-to-make cone-shaped variety, but the Spanish mums thought difficult-to-make top hats would be better. No conclusion was reached and we agreed to meet again the next week.

In the meantime, I received a note from Katie’s teacher asking for parents to come to school to help sew costumes for that class. I arrived at the school on the day and, with five other mums and one dad (all Spanish), all speaking rapid and mostly incomprehensible Spanish, sat around a table sewing the costumes the way the teacher instructed. I discovered Katie was the only child whose red top was not a polo neck. How did everyone else know this and I didn’t? It was too late to do anything about it now. By the end of two hours I was exhausted, not from the sewing, but from trying to keep up with and participate a little in the conversation.

I went home for lunch and returned two hours later for my by now weekly meeting with the parents of Lily’s classmates. It was decided to not make hats for the children, but instead to make matching clown costumes for the mothers. The English/Dutch/Irish mums were none too keen – dreading the extra work involved as much as dressing up like bloody eejits – but the Spanish mums were rarin’ to go. So we set about making seven more clown outfits.

We didn’t have enough orange bin bags, so one of the English mums said she would buy some more a couple of days later when she drove down to Ayamonte. We arranged to meet yet again, on the day before the Carnival, to assemble the costumes.

The day before Carnival arrived, but the mum who had bought the bin bags couldn’t make it to the school, so she gave the bags to me and asked me to pass her apologies on to the other parents. The first person I met when I got to the school was M—. She looked suspiciously at the roll of orange bin bags I was holding in my hand and angrily asked me why I had so many. ‘We only need four’, she croaked, pulling on her fag in the school playground. ‘But they only come in packs of ten’, I replied, simultaneously showing her the number 10 on the side of the bag. She looked at me like I’d spoken to her in Klingon.

Another mum arrived with the key and we let ourselves into the school and set to work in Lily’s classroom. But horror of horrors – the new plastic bags were a slightly different shade of orange and slightly bigger than the other ones. The English/Dutch/Irish mums didn’t think this was a problem, but the Spanish mums seemed to think Carnival was now ruined. We assembled the costumes and, without anyone saying anything, the three sturdy shiny plastic bags ended up in the hands of the Spanish mums while the English/Dutch/Irish mums were left with the flimsy, less shiny other four.

I was ready to go home when one of the Spanish mums thought it would be a good idea if we all – children and mothers – had yellow paper bows for their shoes. We spent the next half an hour on a yellow paper bow production line. Finally, all was ready and I was not the only non-Spanish mum who made a beeline for the Chiringuito bar and a glass of chilled white wine.

The afternoon of Carnival finally arrived. The nine girls in Katie’s class were dressed as majorettes and Diego, the lone boy, as a ring master with a cat-o-nine-tails. The teacher and mums were also majorettes. Lily’s class and mums were clowns, the class above and teacher were Smurfs and the oldest class and mums were a Mexican mariachi band. Whistles and bags of confetti were distributed and we set off through the streets of Sanlúcar, led by Pepe the principal, amid great excitement and fanfare.

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For weeks Lily and Katie had been learning songs, and when we reached the village plaza each class sang its song. We then carried on back to the school where they all sang their songs once again. The smaller children were wonderful. But the older boys (aged 9 to 13) looked thoroughly embarrassed and ill-at-ease and only the enthusiastic and full-voiced girls in those classes saved the day.

When the parade was over we were treated to Coke, Fanta, crisps and chorizo sandwiches. For once, the kids didn’t run around. They were exhausted and just wanted to sit with their food and drinks. The festivities came to a sudden end when the heavens opened and a heavy shower of rain caused us all to run for the cover of our homes.

In two days time the village Carnival will take place. I’m looking forward to being an uninvolved bystander!

A dentist’s dream

On the night of the 5th of January, the Eve of Twelfth Night, the Three Kings arrive from the east, bearing gifts. For Spanish children, this is a far more important night than Christmas Eve. Indeed, Santa Claus has only recently begun to bring one or two small gifts to Spanish children, leaving most of the gift-giving to his Eastern colleagues, the Three Kings. Every Spanish child knows their names – Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchior – and their images grace everything from town centre nativity scenes to household Christmas decorations. Outside some homes one sees decorative Santa Clauses climbing up balconies and outside others are the Three Kings doing likewise. Special cakes are baked and eaten in their honour and the 6th of January, the Catholic Feast of the Epiphany, is a Spanish public holiday.

Julian and Lily attended the Three Kings procession in Aguadulce on the 5th of January last year and came home with great reports, and everyone who has been to the procession in Sanlúcar in previous years assured us it wasn’t to be missed.

Our departure from Carina, at anchor in the river a couple of hundred metres south of town, was delayed by a sudden heavy downpour of rain, but I hoped the rain would also delay the start of the procession. It was with slightly damp bums that we disembarked the dinghy on the Sanlúcar pontoon and made our way up and over the hill and down towards the school, following all the other townsfolk who were doing the same.

In the distance, on the road leading down from the ancient fortification on the top of the hill, we saw the first light. They were (obviously!) coming from the east and as more and more lights joined the procession some of the more impatient among us wondered aloud how long it would take them to get from all the way up there down to the village.

But they were surprisingly quick and within twenty minutes they were coming along the street towards us. First came a local teenage girl (who seems to be the star of everything this Christmas), dressed in long white flowing robes, wearing a long white wig and riding on a white horse. She was followed by each of the Three Kings in turn, each with his own entourage. The Kings – one white, one black, one ginger, all with their faces painted and long curly wigs and beards in those colours – rode horses and threw handfuls of boiled sweets into the crowd. Children and adults scrambled to pick the sweets from the street. All the children – Lily and Katie included – had brought along bags or baskets for the purpose.

As the procession passed we followed after it, picking up sweets all along the route as we walked up to the Catholic church on the top of the hill. There the Three Kings and the lady dismounted their horses and, with their entourages, entered the church one group at a time, through a guard of white clad men. They all bowed in front of the Nativity on the church altar.

This was no ordinary Nativity. It was a living crib – with a nine or ten month old baby playing Jesus, bouncing on the knee of a girl aged about 12 years old who played Mary. Joseph was there too, of course, and angels and shepherds. I was told of the presence of a real lamb in years gone by, but there was none this year. The choir sang five or six lively carols, the priest said a few words and then the Kings and their entourages departed the church backwards, bowing all the while to the baby Jesus.

Back on their horses again they made their way down to the town hall, and we all followed. More sweets were thrown and I had to duck a few times for fear my glasses would get broken by the ferocity of the raining sweets.

The Three Kings and the lady in white seated themselves in front of the town hall and as the names of all the towns children were called out over tanoy, they went up one by one to receive their presents from the Kings. I explained to Lily and Katie that they’d received their presents from Santa already, but they didn’t seem in the slightest bit bothered, so busy were they foraging boiled sweets from the streets.

Children came away carrying wrapped parcels containing dolls, football boots, cars, games. Two small boys rode away on pedal quad bikes! It was an incredible spectacle and the list of Marie-Carmens, Alejandros, Desirees and Cristobals seemed never ending.

The next day, curiosity getting the better of me, I took out the kitchen scales and weighed the two bags of sweets Lily and Katie had collected. Given that we had all munched or sucked our way through a load of them already, Katie’s bag weighed exactly 1kg and Lily’s 1.2kg. That’s some load of sugar. The dentists of Spain must rub their hands in glee at all the business racked up thanks to the Three Kings.

All partied out

The New Year arrived amidst fireworks and singing and the honking of horns. An hour later it arrived again, on the other side of the river. All Christmassed out, my family slept through it all and I lay in bed listening to the fireworks, too cosy and snug to want to get out of bed to take a look from our perfect viewing position in the middle of the river.

Call me a party pooper (it wouldn’t be the first time), but by December 31st I was so overdosed on seasonal cheer that I’d had enough and couldn’t rouse myself for one final bash. Peace and good will? Peace and quiet were what I craved.

We’d had six nights of social engagements in a row before Christmas well and truly got underway. A Christmas dinner for all the children, parents and teachers at the school one night, a carol service in Sanlúcar the next night, a carol service in Alcoutim the night after that. Next came the night of the girls’ Christmas recitals, followed by a gathering in the pub of all the ex-pat live-aboards, and then an invitation for mulled wine and mince pies at someone’s house.

My days were chocolate-filled, as I made batches of tiffin and rum truffles for these events. And what was I to do but lick my fingers (and the bowl) as each batch went in the fridge to chill.

The carol services were almost the undoing of me, as carol services always are. Only the sight of Christmas reunions of long lost family at international airports has a greater effect of turning me into a blubbering emotional wreck. In Sanlúcar the ex-pat, mostly British, choir set a sombre tone with their four-part harmony renditions of many well-known Christmas hymns. They were followed by the local Sanlúcar choir raising the roof, and raising the audience to its feet, with their flamenco-sounding carols, Jose-Manuel from the bar playing flamenco guitar, the mum of one of Katie’s classmates playing tambourine and Remi, who owns the local shop, making wonderful music with a glass bottle and kitchen fork! Afterwards we all retired to the parish hall to partake of a table sagging under the weight of cakes, Spanish hot chocolate, wines and liqueurs.

The next night the Spanish and British ex-pat choirs were in action again, joined by the local Alcoutim church choir, in the de-consecrated church at the top of the hill in Alcoutim. When all three choirs had completed their sets we all sang Silent Night – a verse each in Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, German, French and English, and a final verse where everyone sang together, each in their own language. A verse in Irish probably would have been the undoing of me, but I held it together and the deep fellow-feeling carried me away to the once again heavily laden food table and the ample bottles of – what else in Portugal? – port.

Lily and Katie shone the next night as, respectively, a shepherdess and a reindeer, in their Christmas recitals. No one else’s children were cuter, more beautiful, or performed so well. Ok, so maybe they were and maybe they did, but I couldn’t take my eyes off my girls for long enough to see what any of the other kids in their classes were doing. I’m sure every other camera-wielding parent and grinning grandparent thought the same of their children.

The next evening we joined in the festivities at the Riverside, the favourite haunt of the live-aboards on the river. A Christmas party had been in full swing since 2pm, but we didn’t join it until later on. A motley gang of musicians meet here every Tuesday night to play music and they were all here on this evening with their harmonicas, violins, banjos, guitars, flutes and voices. Julian brought his recorder along and it didn’t take much persuasion for him to join in. After weeks (or a lifetime) of trying to pluck up the courage to sing in public, I finally did. And no, I wasn’t drunk. We had only arrived and I was quarter way through a bottle of weak beer. Carried away on a wave of feeling good, when someone thrust a songbook under my nose and said ‘Does anyone know how to sing this?’ I immediately replied ‘I do’, and off I went to the end of the room where the musicians had set themselves up. ‘What key will you sing it in?’ I was asked. ‘I have no idea what that means’, I replied. I tried to match their music. Too high. Lower. Lower. Lower. Too low. Ok, just right. Afterwards the musicians laughed and said that was in no key they’d ever heard before. Oops. But I sang with gusto, if perhaps not too well, ‘Dirty Old Town’ and ‘The Fields of Athenry’, duetting with Scottish Tom. I could feel the hot redness of a blush travel from my neck up my face, and I wasn’t sure what to do with my hands. Put me in front of a lecture theatre of 300 students and I’ll confidently rattle on without notes for an hour. But put me in front of 30 people I know in a bar to sing and I’m a nervous wreck. No-one booed. But then no-one asked me to sing any more either!

The next evening it was mulled wine and mince pies at the home of a couple I have only recently met. I had an interesting conversation with a British-Dutch academic-turned-novelist who was visiting the hosts for Christmas, and I pretended I was cool about the unlikely (but absolutely true) presence of another Christmas visitor (the son-in-law of the novelist) who spent part of the evening in the corner (the only place he could simultaneously pick up Wifi and power his laptop) in conversation with British astronaut Tim Peake on the International Space Station. It was as surreal as the time I was at a party in Iqaluit, Nunavut and the host received a phone call from Kevin Spacey!

Six days of social engagements. So much good cheer, good food and being a social butterfly. I thought maybe I’d peaked too soon. Maybe I’d already overdosed on all that good cheer and chocolate before the main event. Julian was in our hired car early the next morning to drive to Faro airport to collect my mother and sister from the airport, while the girls and I transferred our stuff up the hill to the apartment the girls, their granny and aunt were staying in for the next four days (Julian and I slept aboard Carina).

How lovely to see my family. We went for long walks in the sunshine, went for a glass of wine BEFORE Mass on Christmas morning (and again after), ate turkey and Christmas pudding, and when Christmas evening arrived we couldn’t drag ourselves away from the comfort of the apartment to join in the beach barbecue we’d been invited to. So the six of us cuddled up under blankets and watched Terms of Endearment and The Evening Star back-to-back amidst groans and giggles and smart-alek comments about how awfully overwrought and badly acted they were. Maybe it was the wine and the overconsumption of cheese and chocolates, but I don’t remember Terms of Endearment being this bad before.

Two days after Christmas Lily and Katie had the birthday party of one of their school friends to attend, so the festivities continued, as I stood around with the other parents, drinking, eating and feeling the force of gravity much more strongly than I did ten days earlier.

My family departed after four too-short days and we stayed berthed on the Alcoutim pontoon for one more day. But we were all ready for some peace and quiet, some calming down, some return to normal life on the other side of the festivities. We anchored a little downriver from the villages and on New Year’s Eve we went for a quiet walk and picnic south along the Spanish side of the river. We were all in bed by 10.30 (Spanish time), Christmassed-out, partied out, having had one of the most sociable, fun and action-packed Christmasses we’ve had in many a year.

Wishing you all a happy and prosperous New Year xx

Homemade Christmas

The Christmas season is well and truly upon us. A couple of weeks ago the streets of Sanlúcar were decorated with three strings of lights (!) and last week a light-tree was placed in the village square at Alcoutim, and local businesses decorated with lights. The lights of Alcoutim haven’t been lit yet, but as we took the dinghy upriver back to Carina last night (after a wonderful evening aboard the boat of newfound friends) we saw the lights of Sanlúcar for the first time, and very pretty they looked too.

The girls have been doing Christmas activities at school, learning about the Three Kings (who, in Spain, are far more important than Santa Claus. It is they who come on the night of January 5th with presents for children, which is great for Santa, because it means a little less work for him). Lily and Katie have been colouring in Nativity scenes and pictures of the Three Kings and I hope they’ll learn some Spanish Christmas songs soon.

There is an ex-pat choir in Sanlúcar which is preparing for carol singing events on both sides of the river in the coming weeks. And the local shops are now selling small selections of Christmas foods.

The girls and I made Advent calendars last weekend and are planning on making decorations for the boat this weekend, to add to those we made last year. My mother and sister are joining us in Alcoutim for Christmas, so there is great excitement as we anticipate their arrival.

On Wednesday I took the early morning bus down to Vila Real de Santo Antonio for a day of Christmas shopping. In this larger town down by the coast the shops were decorated for the season and well stocked with Christmassy things. I bought the presents I wanted to get for Lily and Katie and I stocked up on baking ingredients. I love baking for Christmas!

What I am enjoying about this Christmas season already is that it feels more understated than usual. Here on this remote river there are few opportunities for frenzied Christmas shopping. No Black Fridays here, no 8th of December shopping madness, that’s for sure.

I’ve written before here and here about my unease with the material excesses of Christmas. This year, given the hundreds of thousands of dispossessed and desperate people who have come to our shores seeking refuge, families who have lost all their worldly possessions, children without even one comforting toy or memento of home, the material excesses of Christmas sit even more uneasily with me.

Santa Claus will come to my girls on Christmas Eve. He is part of the magic of Christmas. But the magic of Christmas also lies in making decorations and home-baked gifts to give to our neighbours and friends, carol singing and community events, special foods and time spent with family. I don’t want the loot under the tree on Christmas morning to be the focus of Christmas for my children.

Who needs the material excess of Christmas with its stresses of running around in overcrowded overpriced overheated stores, running down your bank account and running up debts, worrying how people will react to the presents you’ve given them? Other than the shop owners and the banks, no-one needs that sort of Christmas.

Instead Christmas can be a time for family and for reaching out beyond family. For spending time not money; for giving of yourself, not your bank account; for enjoying, not stressing; and for being grateful and thankful for the many riches in your life, rather than feeling disappointed by the unwanted presents under the tree.

My Christmas shopping, what little it was, is done now, and I’m looking forward to a weekend of making felt stars and snowmen and Santa Clauses, writing cards to far-distant friends, making the first batch of tiffin, and drinking lots of hot chocolate with my girls.

I wish you all a gentle and relaxed Christmas.

Reconnecting

After my surreal media week some semblance of normality returned to our holiday in Ireland. I had a few opportunities to spend time in the company of some of my oldest friends. A big-girl sleep-over with two friends I’ve known since we were all four years old involved a lot of good food and even more good conversation.

What a dessert!

What a dessert!

And in last Saturday’s glorious sunshine three of my old (‘less of the old’ I hear them yell) university friends descended on Mammy’s house with an assortment of their children. We caught up while our kids got to know each other. There were a few family get-togethers, filled with tea and cake and ham sandwiches, and visits to other relatives and neighbours.

We celebrated a rip-roaring St. Patrick’s Day, the girls dressed (as one of my friends pointed out) like the Clancy Brothers! We went to Mass in Edenderry to hear and see Granny singing in the choir, and were also treated to the spectacle of Irish dancers dancing up the aisle of St. Mary’s Church.

Begosh and Begorrah..looking none too pleased!

Begosh and Begorrah..looking none too pleased!

Later, we attended the St. Patrick’s Day parade along JKL Street. The parade is a new addition to the Edenderry social calendar. It started only three or four years ago at the height of the recession, in an attempt to lift spirits and boost the economy, when the town and a lot of the people in it were feeling pretty miserable. It was great fun, with many local clubs, societies and businesses with colourful floats. There were marching bands and I was only disappointed to not see any more Irish dancers. One of the local shops gave out free giant green, white and gold lollipops and it took me a few minutes to figure out why the green and yellow around Katie’s mouth was tinged with red. IMG_20150317_141002

The little gluttonous imp tried to stuff too much of the lollipop into her mouth at once, and split her mouth on both sides. If only she was so eager to eat her dinner!

I awoke on Friday morning filled with anticipation for the eclipse. The previous two days had been bright and sunny, so I was disappointed when I opened the curtains to a sky filled with heavy grey clouds. Still, I sat out on the patio, cup of tea warming my hands, awaiting…something. It grew noticeably darker, but that was it. Or so I thought. I went inside to warm up. Half an hour later I ventured outside to bring in turf for the fire and the clouds had thinned to reveal the sun still a little less than half eclipsed by the moon. I yelled for Lily and Katie to come out. They weren’t quite as awestruck as I was!

On Sunday, Lily had a pre-birthday party (five days early), with two little cousins, and a large gathering of my family – Mammy and some of her sisters, my sister, our Nana and, as often at gatherings of my family, the obligatory solitary man, this time in the form of my sister’s boyfriend.

Happy cousins

Happy cousins

The children played, while the adults talked and ate, ate and talked. Mammy put her considerable musical talents to use to play the mouth organ for ‘Pass the Parcel’. ‘Jingle Bells’ in March…what a treat!

All too soon our three weeks in Ireland came to an end and it was time for us to return to Spain – to Julian and to Carina. Since Daddy died and, therefore, since the girls were born, I haven’t spent more than ten days in the house where I grew up. And usually our visits home are around Christmas or for funerals. Three weeks in the middle of March was a very different experience. Everyone else was going about their usual daily business each day and the visit home was devoid of the mania and expectation always attendant on Christmas. It was a much more laid back sort of visit.

Katie and Molly have become great friends

Katie and Molly have become great friends

Three weeks gave Lily and Katie opportunities to become comfortable in the house and the garden, and to spend more time with their great grandmother, Nana Kitty, and various other family members.

It was springtime, so the weather was good, the daffodils were in bloom, there were lambs in the fields – a very different place to the one we so often visit in the darkest days of winter. I have returned to Carina feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, my connections to home rekindled, and Mammy’s bookcase raided for reading material to keep me going for the next few months!

My top destinations

by Julian

It is the end of the year and since we started out in 2012 we have covered 3000 miles in Carina. I have already reviewed when things go wrong, so for balance I thought I would highlight some of the best places we have been to. I have chosen one destination in each country we have visited, though there are many other fabulous places in all five countries.

Tresco – Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, England

TrescoCollageWe moored on either side of Tresco. In New Grimsby Sound on passage to Ireland and in Old Grimsby Sound on the way back. I’ve heard people be a bit sniffy about Tresco because the south end of the island is so well tended. But in fact this is one of the most stunning things about it. It is an island of two extremely different halves. Of course the views everywhere are incredible. When the sun is out the beaches have the feel of a south pacific island. The moorings are a bit pricey but it is possible to anchor. We thoroughly enjoyed our time there. See the blog posts: Hungry sailors in Tresco and Falmouth to the Isles of Scilly.

Muros – Ria de Muros, Galicia, Spain

MurosCollageThe town is absolutely lovely with its old narrow streets overlooking a nice bay. The marina is pricey, but probably the best I have ever stayed in, with the office, lounge and laundry all set in an old converted cottage. It has a great family feel about it. If you love fish Muros is certainly a top destination too and we were there for the fabulous Virgin del Carmen fiesta with its waterborne parade. Despite the comments in the pilot guide about anchoring difficulties plenty of yachts anchored in the bay with no major issues. However, our best time was away from the town, when we anchored off a beach around the corner. I could walk into Muros and we could swim or row to the beach to play for the afternoon. We even collected delicious mussels at low water, whilst some locals were picking the razor clams. See the blog posts: Ria de Muros – a little bit of heaven, Fiesta de Virgin del Carmen and Beach Interlude.

Culatra – Algarve, Portugal

CultraCollagePeople just anchor here and stay for the whole summer and I can see why. What a fantastic place. Away from the traffic children can run around in relative safety, they cannot go far because it is a small island. Many people just seem to hang around barbequing fish that have been collected by the fleet of small, often single person boats. There is also the community of catamarans in the lagoon, some of which are permanent inhabitants. Ferries to Olhao and Faro mean that you can get everything you might need, but it is fun to just stay on the island and meet the people, including sailors from all over Europe. See the blog posts: Have you heard the one about the Inuit family, Old cats and Arviat on the Algarve.

L’Aber Wrac’h – Brittany, France

LaberwracCollageI just love the many faces of L’Aber Wrac’h. You can moor upriver at Paluden, away from the bustling marina of La Palue, or hang out and meet the many interesting sailors (and rowers), from all over the world, passing through on their adventures. There are beautiful walks in the woods, the hills and along the beaches, with their cockle picking opportunities. Nice towns you can walk to (or catch the bus), and of course the chance to sample the delicious food of Brittany. But probably the most spectacular thing is the entrance itself with impressive granite rocks and a giant imposing lighthouse in the backdrop (Possibly the tallest in the world). It is a great staging post for an adventure. See the blog post: Brittany.

Derrynane – County Kerry, Ireland

filename-derrynane-harbourDerrynane has a tight entrance, only to be attempted in good weather, but once in you are safe at anchor, in a beautiful cove. If the weather turns bad you’ll have to stay there and wait it out though. The sort of place where you can swim from the boat to the beach, explore all around the fantastic dunes and rocks, finding a variety of interesting places to play and chill out. It has a great pub too. What more do you want? See the blog post: Dolphins divers and Derrynane.

Conclusion

Well that’s it for now, except to say that I would feel bad without at least a mention of some other places which could have made this list.

Falmouth, Fowey, Penzance, The Yealm and Mevagissey – England.

Horseshoe Harbour – Sherkin Island, Glandore, Crookhaven and Lawrence Cove – Bere Island – Ireland.

Camaret sur Mer – France.

Porto – Portugal.

Ria de Viveiro, La Coruña, Rianxo, Bayona (all of Galicia really) – Spain.

Everlasting summer

It’s the 7th of November and I’m finding it hard to believe that here in Aguadulce the temperature is still mid-20°C every day. Though the mornings and evenings are cooler now, I’m still wearing short sleeves and sandals, and summer just goes on and on. I wasn’t completely convinced by our winter choice of Aguadulce when we first arrived, but now that we’ve settled in, it’s quite grown on me.

So here we are in early November and the sky every day is of the deepest blue, and the great hulking orange rocky hill that rises up behind the marina is like a cardboard cut-out from a Western movie set against the impossibly blue sky.

Off I go to work...

Off to work I go…

Hardly a day goes by without a visit to the beach, only a brief two-minute walk from Carina. We don our swimwear, walk to the beach and plunge into the warm Mediterranean water without hesitation. It’s invariably warm. The water is crystal clear and most days is as still as a mill pond and, as I swim, I see small fish swimming beneath me.

I have to remind myself it's November

I have to remind myself it’s November

At night we sleep under a flimsy sheet and until a couple of nights ago, we kept the cabin hatch wide open all night. Some locals have told me it’s unusually warm for the time of year, others have told me it’s perfectly normal. Irrespective of who to believe, I’m certainly enjoying this extended summer.

Our lives revolve around this little patch of beach beside the marina.

Our lives revolve around this little patch of beach beside the marina.

Hallowe’en this year was a long way from the Hallowe’ens of my childhood. Growing up in Ireland, we did the rounds of all the neighbouring houses, then went to town to visit my Nana’s neighbour’s too. I remember adults and children dressed in home-made Hallowe’en costumes, performing on doorsteps, for sweets and money. We sang, told jokes, played musical instruments, often in the rain or the cold October wind. Then we would return home and play messy Hallowe’en games in the kitchen.

Cute little witches

Cute little witches

This year, we attempted to recreate those Hallowe’ens of my childhood. All week, we crafted ghosts and spiders and other festive decorations to hang around the boat. The girls dressed in the costumes Grandma gave them last year. Before leaving Carina we practiced some songs, accompanied by Julian on the recorder. Then we went around to visit some other boats in the marina, and entertained our neighbours with songs and some rather bad jokes. Our neighbours weren’t expecting Hallowe’en visitors, but they found rewards for our efforts nonetheless. Afterwards, back home on Carina, I introduced the girls to the various crazy and messy games that were such a huge part of my childhood Hallowe’ens.

What was strange was that Julian and I undertook our Hallowe’en visiting dressed in shorts and t-shirts! I’m not expecting to celebrate Christmas similarly attired!

PS…my latest published article ‘Learning by doing: Lessons from my Inuit teachers’ can now be viewed here on this blog.